Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Torchlight II Review

Be at ease. It's good.

Torchlight II Title Screen

I know many of you are still slowly dragging yourselves out of the pits of hell. "Hell" of course being the horrid abomination that is Diablo III. After many long years of waiting, your dreams of playing another masterpiece of Diablo II's caliber were dragged through the mud and left by the wayside to die a slow and painful death. Hopes of re-playability, engaging combat, LAN play options, randomized dungeons, intelligent and useful AI, dynamic quests, useful and interesting loot, and most importantly fun were all stamped out in the name of Activision Blizzard seeing a cut of all those sweet off shore gold selling schemes.  Not that I'm bitter.

Hark! What is this I see? A torch, a beacon of light at the end of the long dark tunnel lined with shattered dreams and expectations! Torchlight II is here and I can feel the warmth emanating from it, and boy does it feel good.

After a series of release date delays, Torchlight II is finally here to warm our hearts. The loving warmth of DRM-free peer-to-peer online co-op, LAN play, and offline single player options. Runic is bringing the heat to back its fiery sequel.

The first and most important addition to the Torchlight franchise is the multiplayer offering. The original Torchlight received unanimous praise as a great game that could stand on its own legs in the face of Diablo. Its only real flaw was a complete lack of a multiplayer option. We wanted to delve into those sweet random dungeons, looting and exploring with friends in tow. Fortunately, Runic heard our cries and has delivered unto us a beautiful peer-to-peer online component. Just create an account with Runic, register your copy of the game and you're good to go. Runic's list merely acts as a matchmaker service; the games are hosted by the players, so instability within Runic will not completely destroy your experience (I'm looking at you Blizzard).

Many features from the original Torchlight make a comeback: fishing, random dungeon portal scrolls, and loyal pets. The companion system has been expanded to include many more offerings than the original dog and cat options. Now you can choose from creatures such as eagles, ferrets, panthers, and many more. TL2, like the original, is designed with the modding community in mind, so I expect to see an even wider array of unique pets in the near future.

This brings me to the next topic, modding. The original Torchlight was designed specifically with the modding community in mind and Torchlight II holds true to the ideas of its predecessor. When asked about possible post release DLC, Runic responded it was unlikely as it was unprofitable to release DLC content which could be easily modded in for free. Development tools for TL2 will be released soon, so Torchlight players can scratch their modding itch very soon.

Torchlight II Engineer
Now to the crux of the matter—Torchlight II's actual game play. The first and most noticeable change from Torchlight is the redesign of all the classes. Torchlight II has removed the three original classes, choosing instead to make available a new batch of heroes with all new talents and abilities. These heroes include the Berserker (a wild beat-em-up melee class), the Outlander (the rogue/ranged class), the Embermage (self-explanatory class), and the Engineer (constructs and devilishly cool monocle class). The character creator is pretty basic. You have the hero face, the emo/drug addict face, the serious face, and the gentleman face. There are a few hairstyles and hair colors to choose from, nothing particularly groundbreaking or interesting. Unless you disable your character's helmet, you will probably rarely see your hair anyway, so this isn't a huge issue. Though again, with Torchlight's large and dedicated modding community, I wouldn't be surprised if there were multiple hair and face mods within the first 24 hours of the game's release.

Torchlight II Berserker

The story continues right where the original Torchlight left off. The big evil Ordrak is dead, but some power hungry villain decided he wanted power at any cost and stole Ordrak's essence. Now he is on a power crazed joyride through the countryside, and it's your job to stop him.

The first thing I noticed after creating my Embermage was the game's pacing. Your character runs much quicker than in the original, and the fights are fast and furious. This leads to much more intense combat, requiring quick thinking and fast reflexes to succeed.  Skills are level locked, but each class has 3 trees from which to choose. Skills and abilities are further broken down into a newly implemented "Tier" system. Players from Diablo and other action RPGs will likely know that it is popular practice to take only one rank of a certain skill, and save your skill points for later levels where those skill points will see more bang for their buck. Torchlight II takes a new approach by offering the player hefty bonuses for investing more skill points into a single skill. The more you level up a skill, the higher tier the spell becomes. Once enough points are invested, the skill essentially levels up into a new tier and grants the player a sizeable bonus for his investment. As an example, I invested 5 points into the basic frost bolt spell for my Embermage. Once he hit a new tier in the spell, the monsters affected by the spell received a debuff reducing all damage they dealt to me by 20%, A very sizeable number by all accounts. This adds a very interesting dynamic to the game's combat system, and allows the player to develop their characters in unique and interesting ways. The three branches for each class vary in damage type and theme. The berserker for example has a wild path, in which he learns skills that are thematically based on wolves. His other trees vary from bloodlust, to seeing the enemy driven before him and hearing the lamentations of their wom...I digress.

Torchlight II Skills
Another new addition to the combat system is the charge bar. As you use combat skills, your character innately loads up a bar above the action keys. Once this bar is full, the player has access to a proverbial limit break. For the Embermage, spells do a significant amount more damage, and cost no mana for a set duration. This leads to devastating and endlessly entertaining results, especially in multiplayer games. 

Torchlight 2 Screenshot
The world of Torchlight II is brilliantly rendered in a very dynamic range of colors. Lush green forests, dark and wet caves, chilly tundra, and snow covered mountains are all beautifully rendered with enticing day and night cycles on my very budget system. The game is wonderfully optimized, and can run very well on lower end systems. The animations are smooth and are a pleasure to watch and experience. The terrain is much larger than the original Torchlight and is split into two diverse areas: overworlds, and passes. Overworlds are large open areas with centralized plot and quest points that are always present, but contain a great amount of randomized content and creatures as well. Passes are smaller and more linear areas which primarily serve as connections between plot points and key areas. 

Torchlight II Screenshot
A returning feature I found to be extremely engaging are the phase beast portals. While running around killing groups of baddies, you will occasionally run across phase creatures. When defeated, these creatures unleash a portal to a completely randomized plane. These planes are filled with mountains of loot, traps, and baddies. These add a fun sidetrack during the main storyline and the treasures found in them are always a pleasant surprise.

Let us not forget the music. Matt Uelmen (World of Warcraft, Diablo, Diablo II, Starcraft) has created a bevy wonderful music to complement the games many environments and situations. The player never feels the urge to alt-tab and open up VLC media player to turn on some music of their own. It engages, builds suspense, surprises, and inspires the player throughout their gaming session. It promotes a deep immersion, rare in titles of late.

What truly makes this game great though is the polish. Everything looks, runs, sounds, and feels finished. There are no corners cut in any department. The small amount of voice acting present in the game is wonderfully done, conveying great emotional depth, but not taking itself too seriously at the same time.  The music is thematic and brilliant at times, building emotions within the player and complementing the story and game play perfectly. The combat is fluid and has a sense of impact which gives the player a great sense of satisfaction after defeating a particularly difficult boss or enemy. The pacing is fast, but not rushed. The player can take the time to explore the lush and vivid environments without feeling they are wasting time, or being rushed to the next area by some quest or timed event. Randomized content gives the game a great amount of re-playability and the game's multiplayer component makes the whole experience come full circle by being able to share the experiences with close friends.

Torchlight II Character
Verdict: What Runic has done here is delivered a very polished, and intense sequel to a very wonderful franchise. I have only one recommendation; go out and buy this game immediately. Fans of Diablo II will appreciate the flow of the fast paced combat and intense boss battles. This is a game catering to both serious action rpg gamers and casual explorers alike. Take a seat and have your icy hearts defrosted by the warmth of the Torchlight.
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